Understanding Depression

Understanding Depression

Depression can be absolutely debilitating, and with the highest recorded number of individuals suffering from depression quality information is more important than ever.

Understanding depression will give you the tools you need to help bring yourself, or someone you love, to a more stable and positive life experience.

This article will break down ways of thinking about depression, provide an understanding of its impact neurochemically and emotionally, and offer specific strategies immediately employable to take your life back from depression.

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Orientation Toward Time

One approach to understanding depression is through perception and orientation toward time.

This may seem a little science-fiction sounding, but the reality is that those who suffer from depression have a past-oriented state of mind.

This means that depression restricts the individual from conceiving only what has been and inhibits that person from seeing what could be.

This orientation toward time can make it feel like you're rowing a boat backward, on the shore; as if all your efforts are in vain and you can't make progress no matter what you do.

This mindset happens to everyone from time to time, but for those with depression alternative perspectives or new strategies seem pointless because the past-oriented framework says "nothing you've done in the past worked, and neither will this."

So, logically, re-orienting to a present or future orientation seems simple enough, but below we'll see how difficult our neurochemistry can truly make it.

Neurochemistry of Depression

If we look at the neurochemistry of depression suddenly it makes a lot more sense how, and therefore why, it forces the individual to think only of the past.

When looking at the neurochemistry of depression there are two primary culprits- Dopamine and Serotonin.

Dopamine and serotonin are the brain's "feel-good" neurochemicals.

Serotonin is responsible for the "here-and-now" positive emotions such as contentedness and satisfaction; Dopamine on the other hand is oriented towards achieving goals, excitement over possibilities, and exploration.

But what does this have to do with an orientation toward time? Well, a depressed mind lacks both serotonin and dopamine which results in the inability to feel good where you are, combined with the inability to experience excitement toward future possibilities.

So, where does that leave the individual? A perpetual state of ruminating over the past and feelings of hopelessness about the future.

Past mistakes or regrets that can't be changed, past pleasures that are now gone, past joys that can never be recreated... and on and on.

Because our neurochemicals aren't activating as they should, it restricts our ability to perceive alternative outcomes and haunts us with only the most recent failures.

What This Means Emotionally

At this point, we've covered how orientation around time is expressed through depression as well as what is occurring neurochemically.

But how do these factors add up to the emotional experience of depression?

When a person is stuck on a negative feedback loop of past mistakes, past experiences that can longer be had, etc. the result is grief, sadness, guilt, shame, despair, and powerlessness.

This is the power of dopamine and serotonin.

Dopamine provides us with the feeling of desire, enthusiasm, hope, excitement, and motivation.

Serotonin grants us the ability to appreciate what we have, compassion towards ourselves, contentedness, satisfaction, and bliss.

When we are depressed and dopamine and serotonin aren't activating as they should, what else is left to experience?

Ruminations over what can't be altered; a fixation on the past that doesn't allow for things like opportunity or excitement for what might be right around the corner. 

It refuses the individual the opportunity to feel that they have self-worth, value, and the power to change their circumstances.

It doesn't allow for appreciation and gratitude for the miraculous occurrences readily available through the laughter of friends, conversations with family, or even enjoying a simple moment in time that you alone have the irrevocable privilege of experiencing for the brief and inimitable period that it exists. 

What to Do About It

There's good news for all of us.

Our brains are engineered to adapt to change.

This means we have the power to alter our perceptions and experiences through conscious effort.

The tricky part is mustering the effort needed; as anyone with depression can attest to, motivation to do anything is seemingly non-existent.

But therein lies the hope, just as our feelings influence our perception and willingness to act, so too can our perception and actions influence our feelings.

So, here are 10 strategies to combat depression:

  1. Goal Direction: Creating goals, no matter how small, stimulates dopamine to be released, and then the achievement of that goal produces more dopamine which becomes a catalyst to increase motivation and become future-oriented.
  2. Gratitude & Appreciation: Watch movies, listen to stories, read books about gratitude and appreciation, or think about a time you felt truly grateful; accessing the emotion of gratitude (real appreciation) increases serotonin and unlocks a flood of positive perspective allowing you the ability to once again enjoy the little things.
  3. Mindfulness Meditation: Focusing your full attention on a single occurrence (breathing, walking, dishes, showering) makes it impossible for your mind to revert to negative emotions and thoughts about the past; each moment of life offers an opportunity to experience, with all your senses, the fullness and brevity of every passing second.
  4. Go Outside: Going outside and exposing your senses to the natural world stimulates serotonin and allows your body a natural absorption of vitamin D which boosts your mood, reduces blood pressure, and improves your immune system.
  5. Proper Nutrition: Humans are chemical beings and when our bodies aren't receiving the nutrients it needs it takes as much of a toll on our minds as it does our bodies; 1000mg of EPAs from fish oil taken daily, for instance, has been clinically demonstrated to be as effective as some anti-depressant medications. 
  6. Movement: Some sort of exercise (hiking, running, weight-lifting, ANYTHING), involves goal direction, mindfulness, potentially going outdoors, and nutrition. On top of all the benefits those individually entail, exercise and movement in and of themselves stimulate the release of dopamine and improve motivation and self-confidence.
  7. Play: This may be the most difficult strategy to implement, but potentially the most important. Depression can feel like an oppressive weight that drains you of all joy, making play the perfect remedy. Play allows you to reconnect with the inner light-heartedness you experienced as a young child and reconnects you to the people who care about you releasing both serotonin and dopamine. 
  8. Religion & Philosophy: Depression is isolating and can make you feel completely alone, but your experience is one that is shared with some of the greatest minds of human history. Exploring the texts left behind by poets, philosophers, and religious thinkers can foster a sense of connection and community that will help replace the feelings of isolation and loneliness with understanding and identification. 
  9. Community: One of the most positive things a person can do is spend quality time with people who matter most. This draws attention away from negative emotions, boosts serotonin, and develops gratitude.  
  10. Show Up: The last strategy is the most simple, show up. Every moment is different from the last, and nothing lasts forever- not thoughts, feelings, circumstances, or perceptions. Acknowledge that your feelings are real, identify them, name them, and allow them to pass away like a storm cloud over a mountain. Each day you continue to show up is a day closer to breaking through that cloud and regaining your sense of self and possibility.

Conclusion

Understanding depression is absolutely vital to recovering from depression.

Understanding depression's effect on the perception of time, and how it alters our neurochemistry and our emotions, will provide immense opportunity to engage with depression, as opposed to passively experiencing it.

We have far more control over our well-being and our lives than we realize, and now you have 10 strategies to help you take your life back. 

Now you have the information and tools to fight back. 

If you notice that none of these tools work for you, that you just can't bring yourself even to start one of them, seek help. 

Talk to your doctor or a professional as soon as possible, don't wait. 

If you are currently harming yourself or having thoughts of suicide call emergency services at 9-1-1 or go to your nearest emergency room. 

Take your life back, you are not a passive onlooker to life, you are an active and capable participant with immense power, you just need to use it.

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May 17th, 2022

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